AUGUSTA — House Democrats rejected a proposal Thursday to slow down the minimum wage increases approved by Maine voters and to establish a lower training wage for young workers.

In November 2016, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative that increased Maine’s minimum wage in annual steps until reaching $12 an hour in 2020. While supporters have hailed the voter-approved law as a long-overdue step toward living wages in Maine, some businesses have warned the size and pace of the increases could force them to increase prices, reduce employees’ hours or lay off workers.

A controversial bill pending in the Legislature, L.D. 1757, would freeze Maine’s current minimum wage at $10 until 2020 and then increase the wage annually by 50 cents an hour, compared to the $1-per-hour increases approved by voters. The latest version would also create a special “youth wage” equivalent to 80 percent of the minimum wage for workers under age 18 during their first 200 hours of employment.

On Thursday, the House voted 81-69 largely along party lines against the bill after lengthy debate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said Maine “cannot afford to do nothing” in the face of rising labor costs that are harming small businesses, especially those in rural Maine. Recalling some of the testimony shared with the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, Stetkis talked about businesses laying off employees or reducing worker hours and benefits because of the higher wage costs associated with the November 2016 ballot initiative.

“I think today the question is do we believe what all of these people are telling us?” Stetkis said. “And secondly, what are we willing to do about it?”

But Democrats and independents pointed out that employment numbers and wages are both up in Maine since the referendum, facts that they say undercut the gloom-and-doom predictions of wage hike opponents.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, a Biddeford Democrat who co-chairs the labor committee, pointed out that the majority of voters in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties – including nine counties that supported President Trump – voted in support of the minimum wage referendum.

Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, criticized bill supporters for once again trying to rewrite a referendum passed by Maine voters. Lawmakers tweaked the minimum wage law last year to reinstate the so-called “tip credit” for restaurant workers and have delayed implementation of marijuana legalization in the state.

“These are the same citizens who, in the face of gridlock in Augusta, exercised their constitutional right to use the citizen’s initiative process to create law,” Ackley said. “And that was because the leaders here could not do so.”

The bill will likely receive stronger support in the Republican-controlled Senate but appears dead in the face of strong Democratic opposition in the House.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH